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One hundred years ago, sports broadcasting on radio was born

NBC Radio broadcasters George Hicks, left, and Graham

NBC Radio broadcasters George Hicks, left, and Graham McNamee in an undated photo.  Credit: AP

Tommy Cowan was in a tight spot — literally. But this was 1921, and he was busy doing his part to help invent a new profession: sports broadcasting.

Unlike television, in which the first live video of sports events can clearly be traced to 1939, the history of sports on radio is fuzzier.

We do know this, though: It was 100 years ago that the new medium began transmitting information in close to real time to fans, first with boxing and later baseball and college football.

That ‘21 World Series between the Yankees and Giants began a trilogy of Fall Classic meetings between the teams that also helped fashion a story arc of the rapidly developing new electronic toy.

In 1921, Cowan had to "call" plays from an unventilated 15 x 20-foot rooftop shack in Newark, repeating verbatim descriptions fed to him via phone from the Polo Grounds by Newark Sunday Call editor Sandy Hunt.

In 1922, famed sportswriter Grantland Rice was able to call the World Series action from inside the stadium, giving fans not in attendance the background sounds of the game for the first time.

In 1923, the Yankees left the Polo Grounds and moved to their own home in the Bronx, and Rice went back to focusing on writing, leaving the call to the first real sports broadcasting star, Graham McNamee.

Back to 1921: The pioneering Pittsburgh station, KDKA, was first to experiment with having an announcer call a baseball game directly from a stadium.

Harold Arlin, a young engineer, worked the Pirates-Phillies game of Aug. 5 at Forbes Field, speaking to a tiny audience with makeshift equipment as the Pirates scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth to win, 8-5.

That was among several events that year on KDKA, starting with an April 11 boxing match between Johnny Dundee and Johnny Ray at Pittsburgh’s Motor Square Garden.

But the most impactful sports radio moment of 1921 was a July 2 title bout between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in Jersey City, which RCA covered by setting up a temporary transmitter in Hoboken.

Like the ’21 World Series, it involved relaying action in near-real time rather than with direct on-site coverage — thanks to a dispute with AT&T over phone lines — but that was enough to demonstrate the potential of the medium.

There were attempts at conveying news over the air as early as 1919 and ’20, including indirect accounts of the 1920 World Series between Cleveland and Brooklyn by Detroit station WWJ.

But at that stage, the radio world largely was limited to engineers and early adopting hobbyists.

It took those early 1920s Fall Classics between two New York teams to drive home the possibilities — not only for sports coverage but for selling radios themselves.

Crowds began to gather at storefronts to listen to games, as they had done in earlier decades to see recreations based on telegraph reports from stadiums.

The difference in 1921 was the results came not long after people in the stadium had observed them and were delivered in a human voice.

The first belonged to Cowan, 37 at the time, who personally knew an inventor of some renown named Thomas Edison. He had worked as a receptionist for the scientist’s West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory.

By 1921, Cowan had become the first voice of WJZ — what is now WABC — and found himself the star of the station’s unofficial coming-out party.

Hunt, an All-American football guard for Cornell in 1901, stationed himself in the stadium, from which he was connected to Cowan, who simply parroted Hunt’s play-by-play.

Entering Game 1, Cowan was not well-prepared for conditions inside the shack atop the Westinghouse facility in Newark, which was reached via a 15-foot metal ladder and a hatch in the roof.

According to an account in "Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio," a 2015 book by James Robert Walker, Cowan was so fatigued by holding a receiver to his ear for two hours that he lost track of the score.

For Game 2, he was given a headset that freed his arms and made his ears less sore.

Few saw much direct worth in the enterprise. There was no advertising and no rights fees on early Series broadcasts.

The medium evolved rapidly, though. By the time the Yankees and Giants met in 1922, the listening experience was more recognizable.

Rice called the action from the stadium itself, but the greatest revelation for fans was hearing the sounds of the game live, from many miles away.

After Game 1, The New York Times gushed over being able to hear the umpire announce the batteries and a boy selling ice cream cones in the stands.

"The cheers which greeted Babe Ruth when he stepped to the plate could be heard throughout the land," The Times wrote, "and as he struck the ball the shouts that followed indicated whether the Babe had fanned or got a hit even before the radio announcer could tell what happened."

The 1923 Series on WEAF — at WFAN’s current 660-AM frequency — featured Rice’s New York Tribune colleague, W.O. McGeehan, on play-by-play.

That is, until McGeehan lost interest in the fourth inning of Game 3, went back to writing and turned the announcing over to McNamee, who would become the nation’s first real sportscasting star.

Within a few years, fans were complaining that his calls clearly were biased against their team — and newspapers were publishing critiques of his work.

So a century and countless baseball calls later, some things have not changed.

New York Sports